Tag Archives: “Laline Paull”

Van has finished reading… The Ice by Laline Paull

25 Sep

the ice

The sea ice is gone and the Arctic is open for business. Tourists on a cruise, hungry for the sight of a polar bear get more than they bargained for when they witness the largest reported ‘calving’ of a glacier – and the resurfacing of the body it releases. What really happened to environmentalist and business associate Tom Harding at a remote Arctic Lodge four years earlier? Is anyone ready to tell the truth?


Laline Paull’s second novel, The Ice, is a gripping story of success, betrayal and the boundaries people are prepared to cross to get where they want to go. We follow Sean Cawson – a self-made man and old friend of Tom Harding’s – from hearing the news of Tom’s re-emergence, through the inquest into his death where Sean is a main witness, having survived the incident that killed Tom. Flashbacks into Sean’s past draw the main characters together and set their trajectories tidily, the environment on one side and business on the other, though in the courtroom it’s frequently where friendships blur those battle lines that the tension mounts. The pace picks up with the mounting tension and rushes headlong at a particularly satisfying last few chapters.


Climate change is undoubtedly the driving force of this novel – in both plot and the reason for its being – though its application is suitably subtle. The Inquest witness box allows nicely for those moments of grandstanding you might expect on both sides of the argument but aside from that there are those little things you’ve probably noticed, and that we’ll expect to become more frequent occurrences until they’re accepted as the norm. The trees greening up earlier and earlier, summer clothes even before it’s meant to be spring, that fine rust coating of Saharan dust over London. And then there’s the moment in the novel where the Northern Lights are clearly visible over London, and of course we’re all ooh and aah and can’t possibly imagine just how bad a sign that really is.


I love the character of Joe Kingsmith – what a very Arthur Miller name that is, really on the money, that one. He’s everything we want in an archetype, and just that little bit extra too. For all the work Laline Paull does to stop us making our minds up too early, there’s that sullied feeling we get in the presence of too much power and money, the prey-response unease he can’t fail to provoke. And then there’s Radiance, perhaps the other side of the Kingsmith coin: despite the power and money her shrewdness leaves us helpless when we want to dislike her.


Interspersed between chapters are snippets from various historic Arctic Journals that begin by showing us something of the hardship and extremity of the polar region. What I found most interesting about them is how, used in this way, they’re seen as the early-warning flare. Men (inevitably, it’s men) who want to face these extremities and chart these uncharted places, and the men who want to read about it and then go and do their own charting, and seemingly ubiquitous writing-off of the communities who live there already so as to highlight rather than undermine each author’s endeavours. What’s undeniable in all this is that we as a species can’t bear the blank space on the map. And hot on the heels of those blazers of the blank-space trail is the money and the ruin.


Laline Paull’s The Ice is a prescient and gripping read. Big characters to test your allegiances, a taut plot to test your nerves, and stakes that couldn’t be higher. Well, what else would you expect from the author of The Bees?

Read it now, before it becomes fact!


The Ice was published by 4th Estate on the 4th May 2017 ISBN:9780007557752

You can find Laline on Twitter @ and at her website, 4th Estate


My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.



Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

Van has finished reading…The Bees by Laline Paull

8 Mar

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I picked this book up. The gold-inlayed bees on the boards under the jacket are lovely, and with a name like The Bees I knew it had to have something to do with bees, but perhaps it says more about my highfaluting tendencies that I was interested to see how said bees were going to work as metaphor or cypher in the grand scheme of a life laid bare. Turns out it’s a story about bees. As in a story told from the point of view of a bee. No, no, don’t look like that. That’s the kind of attitude that makes the reading of a book like this an obstacle. The simple fact is that it’s a fascinating, gripping, intense, wholly emotional and thoroughly wonderful book.

Okay, if you’re the sort of person who can’t give yourself up wholly to a book you may struggle with the idea of living as a bee. I can only advise you to give in to it. Laline Paull has done all the work for you – I feel like I know how a hive works, like I could do an exam on it there’s so much information in there.

The characterisation is excellent, serving not only to separate the distinct influences on Flora’s journey but also laying out the strata that form the life of the hive. Formed into kinships, the bees of each sisterhood share their common and distinct behaviour and voice, yet there’s room in there to recognise the individual too, where a threat rises or a concession is made. Each character feels as real as any person you might meet in a novel about people, each affected by the things that speak to their particular station, each behaving according to their duty, their desires and their station.

Don’t get the idea this is a data-heavy block of tedium, however. In fact it’s something of a lesson in suspense writing. Before we even know what Flora’s life is she is dragged out of her comfort zone and thrust into danger. Flora is the heroine and could easily stand for an archetype: born to a lowly station, yet with talents beyond the usual, she is destined to transcend the confines and conventions of expectation. Every single chapter is either the culmination of or the auguring in of some new peril. There is trust and deception, love and duty, power and fear. And, speaking frankly, if you don’t think twice about using pesticides in your garden after reading this there’s something wrong with you.


I can hand-on-heart predict that this will be one of Mrs Van’s books of the year come December. Not only because she is a secret stroker of bees but for all the reasons given above. We’re about halfway through now and she keeps asking me in a small voice whether it all works out in the end for Flora (we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we!). She also bought some extra flowers for the garden at the weekend when she heard about their pollen and nectar-producing qualities.

This book genuinely has made me look at the world differently. Okay, I like my garden and enjoy plants and flowers but I can honestly say I’ve never been so happy to see our little magnolia opening her buds up to the early foragers. It is a truly fantastic read.


The Bees was published by Fourth Estate on 8th May 2014 ISBN:9780007557721

You can find Laline Paull on Twitter @lalinepaull and on her website www.lalinepaull.com